By Tim Carrington
To residents and weekend escapers, Rappahannock County is about blue horizons, ponderous cows and glorious summer produce. But for Mohsin Ahmad, who arrived in 2006 as an exchange student from Peshawar, Pakistan, Rappahannock is the place that helped distill a new role in life — that of a cultural go-between, a listener-turned-explainer, a quiet ambassador for East-West understanding in a world hungry for stereotypes.
Mohsin, pronounced “Moe-Sin,” encountered Little Washington in 2005 on a document he received from the U.S. State Department, which had approved his application for a special student exchange program covering Muslim countries. He figured it was a nickname for the nation’s capital.
Today, Mohsin knows something about both Washingtons, having completed a year at Rappahannock County High School, and returned, with the help of a network of Rappahannock County supporters, to Goucher College in Baltimore.
His recent graduation provided the occasion for celebrating the unusual friendship that evolved between the Peshawar student and the Piedmont Virginia community that surrounded him. Friends from the 2007 class, Goucher graduates and two dozen supporting adults from the community gathered last Saturday at the home of Chris and Elizabeth Johns.
Like any enduring friendship, Mohsin’s link to Rappahannock County can’t be neatly explained. “I can never grasp it,” Mohsin admits. “But I am always going to be thankful.” When he tells his sister and brother about families housing him, cooking his meals and helping him into college, they ask, “Why did they do that?”
But Mohsin’s Rappahannock and Goucher friends make it clear that whatever was “done for Mohsin” was outweighed by what Mohsin did for them. Says Elizabeth Johns: “What really ended up happening is that he taught us an awful lot.” Clay Vickers, a Rappahannock classmate briefly home from work in London, adds, “He was an amazing person to be around.”
Mohsin’s small stature and natural humility don’t square with his large footprint. Though nothing about Mohsin suggests radicalism, friends understand him to be radically open. At school, this meant diving into one new challenge after another — cross-country running, drama, soccer, friendships.
At college, his mindset showed itself in other ways. When a professor made remarks that a classmate interpreted as bigoted and insulting to Muslims, Mohsin argued against a rush to judgment. “Even when that racism and bigotry was directed against his own culture, he was defending him,” the classmate said, still somewhat stunned.
Mohsin, who smiles more than most people, operates without any need to discredit those with different — even hard to accept — views, philosophies or behaviors. According to this classmate, this creates “a sort of ripple effect,” taking the edge off divisions that show themselves in any diverse community.
When first encountering American culture, Mohsin found that virtually any aspect of life — religion, food, girls’ and boys’ interactions and behavior toward adults — was approached differently than at home. One conclusion might be that one society has it wrong. But Mohsin says he decided “that it is utterly wrong to judge a society by my own standards, because they are not living in that.” Eventually he came to another, more surprising conclusion: “I found out how similar Americans are to Pakistanis.”
The entire experience, Mohsin says, now seems both “magical and surreal.” The State Department program was a long shot: Peshawar was seen as a frontier town — backward, even dangerous — within Pakistan, which was itself a world away from the U.S. And Mohsin, while a solid student, wasn’t a top-of-the-class academic star.
However, the program emphasized cross-cultural understanding, and here Mohsin was found to be a good bet. Mohsin’s father (his mother had died when he was a child), had made his three children’s education his highest priority, and “he was very, very excited,” Mohsin remembers. “We belonged to a lower middle class family. It was almost unheard of that I would be able to study in the U.S. for one year without paying anything.”
Peshawar’s reputation for violence, while sometimes exaggerated, isn’t fiction: Mohsin was careful about broadcasting his good news, apprehensive that some would see participation in any U.S. program as a betrayal, and make him pay a price for it.
During the orientation programs, Mohsin felt that other Pakistani students viewed the small contingent from Peshawar “as very conservative and not mainstream and a little backward.” After a few days, he adds, the stereotypes collapsed and “a lot of people were surprised that we were just like them.”
The Peshawar address remained problematic. Arriving at Dulles airport, a busload of Muslim students waited for Mohsin to pass through the immigration screening, a five-hour process. When he finally boarded the bus, applause erupted. About a week later, en route to his new home in Rappahannock, it emerged that it was Mohsin’s birthday, so the trip was diverted to acquire a cake.
After the year in Rappahannock, Mohsin returned to Peshawar for a two-year “college” providing university preparation. Violence escalated in Pakistan, and life in Peshawar became fraught. A retired U.S. diplomat steeped in Pakistani politics observed in 2009 that “the whole world is beset with problems, but if there is a single epicenter, it might well be Peshawar.”
In June, 2009, a Western visitor described the city as a “living hell” of shuttered shops and businesses, with a terrorized populace facing murderous brutalities from the Taliban. Girls were flogged, businesses extorted, harrowing videos circulated. Mohsin, then working on social service programs — providing support for youth displaced by the violence, among other things — remembers “bomb blasts almost twice a day.”
Mohsin’s Virginia friends kept in contact. “When I see that you people are still finding time for someone who is sitting all the way across seven seas, I am speechless,” Mohsin wrote.
Meanwhile, plans for university became tenuous. Slots in Pakistan were fiercely competed for, scholarships even more so. And family resources were depleted. Mohsin, a neophyte in the labyrinthine U.S. college process, wondered about attending Harvard or M.I.T.
Back in Rappahannock, Rosa Crocker and Ellen Adams were worried, and ignited a multi-faceted drive to get Mohsin out of Peshawar and back to the U.S. for college. Adams had been part of Mohsin’s Rappahannock host family, and Crocker and her husband Jay Monroe were among his closest friends. The two families, together with the Johns, often got together with Mohsin, who assumed they were all one family repeatedly assembling the cousins and in-laws as families did in Pakistan.
The two women, juggling work and family commitments, contacted schools within a four-hour radius, compared admissions policies, curricula, social environments and international student loan programs. Faculty from RCHS provided coaching on the application essays. Encouragement flowed in after a disappointing set of initial SAT scores. Special efforts were required to arrange for matriculation midway through the academic year.
Among several choices, Goucher emerged as the best match, and Mohsin returned to the U.S. The two Rappahannock mothers continued the networking, securing funding to cover Mohsin’s expenses, making connections for summer jobs and internships.
Meanwhile Mohsin was building another circle of devoted supporters and friends at Goucher. He is now looking for a job with an international non-governmental organization, with the thought of returning to Pakistan in a year to pursue humanitarian and economic development work.
As with any post-graduation celebration, there are elements of uncertainty. No one knows what will unfold in Pakistan, in Peshawar, in the minds of potential employers or immigration gatekeepers. Mohsin says he will always struggle to understand just what happened in Rappahannock County, and to grasp how the friendships and support materialized as they did.
The one explanation he’s come up with is that he and his Virginia community found they shared a hope for what he calls the “preferred world,” a place where bigotry and the unnecessary suffering of violent conflict have become unreal.
Tim Carrington is a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal, living part time in Rappahannock County.